A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it? A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barna’s answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.
One of the greatest challenges in urging the teenagers in our youth groups toward lifelong faith in Jesus is helping them to see how the gospel speaks to everyday life and to the questions posed by modern culture. Barna’s research demonstrated that young people care whether what they hear at church addresses their everyday world and this desire has only increased in the years since the study, as teenagers have become more socially conscious.
Our students are longing for a more beautiful world, and we see this longing echoed in their concern for racial equality, for environmental protection, and even in their use of social media—whether it’s curating a polished Instagram account or editing a funny TikTok video. Our calling, then, is to show how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus not only restores our individual lives but also promises to renew the whole world (Rev. 21:1-5).
Addressing the broader culture in our youth ministries goes beyond simply talking about current events. If we want the teenagers we serve to apply the beauty of the gospel to their lives and to the questions of their day, we must also present a winsome alternative to the dominant worldview.
Here’s the challenge: On the one hand, we must know our students’ culture well enough to help them see how the gospel meets their deepest longings. On the other hand, we must not become so fixated on addressing whatever students are talking about that we neglect to teach the full counsel of God’s Word. As ministers of the gospel, we are called, just as Paul charged Timothy, “to preach the word…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
In effort to avoid these extremes, consider varying the ways you integrate cultural references into your gospel-centered ministry to students.
Use timely illustrations.
A well-placed reference to whatever movie or TV series your students are watching lets them know you care about their interests—and a thoughtful allusion to the real-world issues they are concerned about goes even farther to show that you are paying attention to what matters most to them. For example, in 2019 as teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg took the global stage, her platform became a case study for a lesson I was teaching in a series about stewardship. My students and I talked about which parts of her message fit within the Christian story of God’s call for human beings to care for His gifts and cultivate the earth (Gen. 1:26-31, 2:18-19), and which parts denied the existence of the God who promises to make all things well again. Illustrations can be more on the micro scale as well, like using the barge stuck in the Suez Canal to drive home a spiritual point—or whatever else teenagers are talking about that week.
A word of caution surrounding the use of illustrations, though: Always take care not to minimize issues that merit more intentional airtime. I learned this the hard way several years ago after making an off-handed reference to the transgender debate in a Sunday School teaching. A thoughtful student brought up that particular talk months later and gently said she thought the topic of sexuality and gender deserved its own conversation. I thanked her for her wisdom and have never forgotten it. Sometimes an illustration isn’t enough and we need a designated conversation instead.
Consider the mood in the air.
Addressing the cultural milieu of the day has less to do with current events and more to do with a general mood or sentiment—that “hollow and deceptive philosophy” about which Paul warned the Colossians (Col. 2:8). Speaking into the empty philosophies of this world begins with listening well. We earn the right to be heard by our students when they experience that we can articulate the deepest questions of their generation, perhaps even better than they can themselves. Dealing honestly with these questions gives us opportunity to apply the gospel to the pervading tone that is catechizing our students in hopes that they will be better poised to see the gospel’s relevance for every part of life.
My husband came up with a teaching series for our high school Sunday school class that encapsulates this opportunity to speak to students’ broader questions entitled How Do You Deal? For six weeks, we looked at questions such as how to deal with doubt, with a teacher who antagonizes your faith, with personal suffering or the suffering of others. The series allowed us to name the questions with which our students were wrestling and then to work through what the Bible had to say about each one. By dealing with some of the world’s philosophies explicitly, we hoped to assured students that their questions are welcome, and that the community of faith has resources in the gospel to work through them together.
Lean in to prayer.
If we believe in the essential nature of expository Bible teaching for healthy gospel-centered ministry, we will be cautious about how often we interrupt our planned study to address current events outright. Still, we must be careful not to ignore national or global events in the context of our youth gatherings, particularly when how students view the heart of God in response to human dignity is at stake. Remember that students will learn as much from what is missing from our teaching as they will from what we teach explicitly. Spending time together in prayer is a critical response when the news is troubling to us and to our students.
One of my small group co-leaders modeled this so well in the wake of the recent violence against Asian Americans in Atlanta as we met with middle schoolers on a Zoom call. When it was time for prayer requests, she shared how heavy her heart has been thinking about those senseless acts. She gave the girls a window into her own life by sharing how proud she was of her company’s CEO for the stand he had taken against racism in their workplace. She gently asked two Asian American girls in our group how they were doing, following up on things they had shared previously about racist comments at school, and then we prayed together.
This leader’s masterful use of our prayer time let the girls in the group know the things that trouble them weigh on our hearts as leaders, too. It created space for them to bring these concerns to God, connecting their faith in Jesus with what they hear in the news and experience at school. We were able to point students once again to the goodness of God’s design in marking all people of every race with His own image and in promising to restore that image through Jesus. To a generation that cites racism as their number one concern, this message is really good news.
Know when to pause scheduled content.
Sometimes we will choose to interrupt our thoughtfully planned curriculum or our expository Bible study series in order to acknowledge what is unfolding in the world around us.
One example of this in my own ministry has been the weekend of December 14, 2012—the Sunday after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The church I served at the time was just one town over from Newtown, and roughly 20 of our middle and high schoolers lived there. As our youth ministry team prepared to gather with students that Sunday, there was no way we could talk about anything but the events of two days before. Of course we wanted to point students to Jesus through teaching his Word—and as God’s providence would have it, the passage we had outlined for that morning was none other than Revelation 21. But we needed to make more space for dialogue, pastoral counseling, and prayer than our typical lesson format would have allowed.
Our proximity to the event and the personal nature of its impact on our students dictated that we largely set aside our planned content that day. Exercising wisdom about when to alter our plans shows students that we’re paying attention, that we believe God’s Word speaks to the deepest concerns of our world. Practically speaking, this may look a little different in each context.
Maximize personal conversations.
Like parents wondering whether they’ve taught their high school senior all he or she needs to know, every youth minister struggles with the question of how to impart as much spiritual equipping as possible before our students graduate and leave us.
Some of our best opportunities to relate to our students’ cultural context will be not in our large group teaching times, but in one-on-one or small group interactions. By demonstrating curiosity about why a student likes a certain video game or listening while she processes the conversation in science class that made her question the biblical narrative, we demonstrate care for the whole person.
These smaller settings are often where students’ deepest concerns will come to the surface: for example, confessing same-sex attraction or sexual sin, sharing about anxiety or addiction or stress. Hopefully our up-front presence at youth group and our attempts to root the gospel of grace in the real world have signaled to our students that yes, they can come to us with those concerns and find a safe space to process in light of the finished work of Jesus.
As Paul writes to Timothy, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). So as youth ministers, may we not unwittingly push students toward these false teachers by our own fear of cultural engagement! Instead, may we “preach the word in season and out of season” (v. 2), showing how timeless, relevant, and beautiful the good news of Jesus is for every cultural moment and for every experience of living in this world—until he returns to make it all new.